Work hard and you get the day off! Not all decisions taken at school councils are practical, but that's part of the learning process. Carolyn O'Grady reports
Nine people are at the meeting, including the headteacher. Among the items on the agenda are setting up a cycling club, establishing a healthy tuck shop and the possibility of organising a breakfast club.
Glenn Shannon is in favour of the cycling club; he knows a school where it has worked well. The head points out that breakfast club regulations stipulate that at least 15 to 20 must attend. The idea of a healthy eating club is well received though there are concerns about nut allergies. Some, including Emily Jeffels, suggest keeping a list of those who can't have nuts. Minutes of the meeting record everyone's views.
A governors' meeting? A school management meeting? No, this is a school council meeting at Wallsend St Peter's Church of England Primary School - a 250-pupil school in a comparatively disadvantaged area of Newcastle (34 per cent of pupils have free schools meals).
Glenn and fellow representatives will report back to their classes, note any concerns raised and organise a vote if necessary. They will then report their classmates' opinions to the next gathering. It is an exercise in school democracy.
Glenn is 11 years old and Emily is eight. With six other class representatives they meet fortnightly to discuss matters and make decisions that affect the school. Two representatives from each class in the upper four years of the school, plus one "reserve", are elected annually, with candidates nominating themselves. Before voting takes place they each give a short address to their class on what they could do for the school.
Headteacher Lorna Reed describes the school council as "the crowning glory of the citizenship curriculum. It covers most of the targets, and it enables us to live what we teach". She admits, however, that when it was set up three years ago staff were very unsure: "They were concerned about children telling teachers what should be done and worried about who would be elected.
"But in fact the children were very discerning in their choices. There were some impractical suggestions including one that, because the children had worked so hard, they should be given a day off. But learning that they have to work within constraints is part of it. And they also learn that I have constraints imposed on me as well."
And, of course, some ideas haven't worked. For example, some backtracking was made on a scheme for a "friendship point" when it became clear that those in need of friendship were not going to the designated place. "But being prepared to amend decisions is also part of what children learn," says Lorna.
She also says that, ideally, a pupil should chair the meeting but she has to "hold the reins to keep things moving". She emphasises, however, that "the pupils control the agenda". Eventually she hopes to hand over minute-keeping to an older child.
Staff have been won over by the council "mainly because of the kind of sensible issues that the children have raised", says teacher Susan Barker.
"Staff have seen the benefits. If children have a say, they are going to take ownership and will want things to work."
Her words are echoed by council member Diane Johnson (aged 10), but from another perspective: "If you decide something on the school council, it's not like the teacher has decided it - it's a chance to do something that you decide. It makes you want to do it more."
Take, for example, the anti-bullying box, installed at the suggestion of the school council, where children can post signed or anonymous complaints of bullying. Council members open it daily and talk to those involved. If they don't feel they can handle a situation they seek help from a member of staff.
The council has also organised anti-litter squads for the playground.
Children often bring up issues that could be easily overlooked by staff.
For example, it was decided that Year 3 pupils would have their lunch break in the infants playground and use their toilets. However, after hearing complaints from pupils, class representatives pointed out that the larger children could be seen over the small doors. "We hadn't thought of it ourselves and we've now restructured play so that Year 3 is able to use the junior toilets," says Lorna.
The school council is also engaged in fundraising. When a mother of one of the pupils who had been to Africa for a year came to give the council a talk members were so moved by her stories of poverty they decided to raise money for a block of toilets in a village. It was also decided that every class would raise money for a new early years unit being built by the school.
The next step, says Lorna, will be to organise training for council members. Already one teacher is doing a course in peer mediation for children and she will then go on to teach the pupils. There are also plans to extend the scheme to Year 2, but almost more important, says Lorna, is maintaining the school's caring ethos. A school council must reflect a school's ethos of caring and listening, she says.
For information on school councils visit www.schoolcouncils.org
There must be commitment from the headteacher and staff.
A school council must be embedded in the ethos of the school. "Children must know that they can approach an adult and what they say will be listened to and dealt with," says headteacher Lorna Reed.
Before voting, discuss with pupils the kind of person who would make a good representative, for example, someone with good communication and listening skills.
Give children who want to be on the council the opportunity to say what they would do. Encourage those who are too shy to step forward.
Make sure council members know they have to report all concerns raised by their class to meetings. They also have to note how the class has voted on issues.
School council members must be given time to report what has happened in council meetings to their classes. Time also has to be allowed for the election of a new council every year.
Voting should be by secret ballot.
Staff should be told about decisions made at council meetings.